Player's Review, 7/20/09:
My usual disclaimers:
– Because I read guitar reviews to learn about other instruments
and the luthiers who made them, I find reviews that gush about particular
instruments to be boring. I’m pleased that the writer loves their
guitar, but then I question how much of the review is really descriptive,
and how much is colored by that ‘honeymoon feeling’, especially
since those reviews rarely seem to have anything to say about the instrument
that is not superlative. So no gushing here, even when there is reason
to. Specifically, if I ever use the word 'stunning' or any of its derivative forms in these reviews, may I be flogged repeatedly and unmercifully with a handful of rusty Black Diamond guitar strings (12-string, medium gauge).
– I am on record that I have found it
a rarity to encounter an instrument that I would call ‘Exceptional’
(which is my subjective category for the small handful of the finest
guitars I have ever played: less than 6 in 40 years of playing), and
my personal quest is to own a few of these Exceptional
– Evaluating a guitar is a personal, subjective thing, but in
describing the experience to others I strive to be as empirical and methodical in my
descriptions as possible.
– How would you describe the taste of an orange to someone who
never ate one? Similarly, all discussions of tone ultimately devolve
into metaphorical language as we attempt to describe in words that which
can only be experienced first-hand through the senses. We also tend
to choose metaphors that are value-laden (‘clear’ is good,
‘muddy’ is bad, etc.). I will strive to use value-neutral
terms unless a value-laden one seems more accurately descriptive.
In evaluating this guitar, I also used my 2007 Circa OM (see pics & review at <http://www.magills.net/33.html>) for contrast. The Circa, being an instrument that I know well, was meant to serve simply as a baseline guitar to illuminate their differences, and not a standard against which the 00 was to be measured. I put a set of new Curt Mangan medium-light strings on both my Circa and the 00 and played both of them by turns for several hours. The scale length and neck dimensions were the same, but otherwise, given the fact that the woods, body size, bracing, and overall design were so different, a head-to-head comparison was neither possible nor desirable. Indeed, it was the differences between them that I was most interested in. The Circa was built to be a new expression of the 'Vintage' sound with strong fundamentals, and a punchy focused voice, while the Bashkin is an example of the 'Contemporary' sound with a more responsive, ringing quality and greater complexity in the overtones. After I got a feel for their differences in this initial session, I put the Circa aside to evaluate the 00 on its own terms. I continued to experiment with different brands of string and different string gauges for the next several days. During this period, when I occasionally picked up the Circa again for contrast, I was interested to find that, while the Circa had its strengths, there were some aspects of it that now suffered in comparison to the 00.
Michael Bashkin has been building guitars full-time since 1998 and studied with noted luthiers Harry Fleischman and Ervin Somogyi. When I went looking for a superb example of the Contemporary sound, I started with the luthier lists from the Healdsburg, Montreal and Newport Guitar festivals, and began researching their websites. Bashkin guitars, with their elegant and distinctive design, appealed to me immediately, and after I got the opportunity to play one, and got to know Michael, I felt confident that he could build the kind of guitar that I would appreciate. One gets the impression that he doesn't follow usual building techniques just as a matter of course, but has carefully considered every feature of a guitar's design and construction and made conscious choices about all aspects of his approach. I've found him to be a deeply thoughtful and creative luthier, quietly driven to produce distinctive instruments that can stand among the finest guitars in the world.
Over a period of eighteen months, Michael and I went through extensive talks using several of his guitars and my Circa for reference, in order to clearly define the sound I was looking for in a Bashkin. I also told him that I favor light guitars. The only things I specified other than the target sound were a cutaway and a neck profile exactly like my Circa. John Slobod kindly sent Michael one of his necks to use as a template, and all other decisions regarding body size, woods, etc. were left to the builder.
Playing a guitar is a complex sensory experience involving Sight, Sound and Touch, and here are my thoughts regarding each of these dimensions for this guitar.
Bashkin's background in environmental science and his love of Japanese art express themselves clearly in the clean lines and celebration of rare and beautiful woods that make up the Bashkin design aesthetic. In this instrument, featuring five different types of rosewood and eleven(!) other exotic woods, Michael has produced one of the most distinctive guitars I've ever seen. Nearly every feature of this guitar is visually dramatic and arresting, and the more one looks, the more there is to notice. The label lists the number '9309,' signifying that this is Bashkin Guitar # 93, completed in 2009.
Michael's interpretation of the 00 body shape is slender and fluid. The LS redwood top (for more info on this rare and remarkable wood, see post #40 on page 3 of this thread), is richly colored with greater contrast in the grain than cedar, with a lot of detail to draw the eye that is not as obvious in spruce. The bone/torched wood rosette, bridge shape and headstock are signature Bashkin features with a distinctive design. The Panamanian rosewood back and sides look unlike any other wood I've seen, with its colors ranging from chocolate to golden, and contrasting dark flecks throughout. Bashkin guitars feature a stiffer, double-sided construction to more efficiently focus the strings' energy to the top, and the inner sides are Bolivian rosewood. The fingerboard, from a 50 yr. old Brazilian rosewood gunstock blank, has dark red and brown grain running at a slight angle to the centerline adding visual interest to a feature that typically has the uniformity of black ebony. The instrument will eventually have 3 mm mastodon ivory fingerboard fret markers at the 5, 7, 9, 12 and 15 frets. The wood chosen for the rosette materials, purfling, binding, bridge pins, tuner buttons, headplates and heel cap seem to complement each other and integrate well with the overall red/gold/brown color scheme. The cream-colored Port Orford cedar neck, chosen over mahogany for its lighter weight, looked, during the build process, to be somewhat incongruous with the rest of the woods, but in the finished instrument provides a bold contrast that I've come to appreciate, setting off the darker front and back headplates, with the dark Bolivian rosewood accent strip in the center linking it back to the rest of the guitar's colors. Looking inside, the guitar is very clean, though there is some very slight squeeze-out of the hide glue visible along the back braces which might trouble the exceedingly fastidious.
Most of this category addresses how it feels to play it, but there are some basic tactile impressions as well.
At 4.2 lbs. the overall weight is fairly light, and the balance point when held in playing position is perfectly situated, just over the upper bout. The neck profile was shaped to match that of my Circa, and I discern very little difference between the two. There are some guitarists I know who prefer the feel of lacquer to the UV poly finish, but I think it feels fine, and I appreciate the increased protection from the harder finish.
As to playability, the action as currently set up feels smooth and very easy to play, though there's a bit of buzzing when driven hard, especially with a capo on. Michael builds his necks with a bit flatter relief on the treble side than the bass side, and digging in at the 4th or 5th fret creates a slight buzzing I don't hear at the 2nd fret or on an open string, so the neck relief on the treble side might need some small adjustment, or perhaps the whole action might need to be raised slightly for firm strumming. I try to play with a light touch and seldom get string buzz, so the current action is fine for most of my playing purposes.
The Circa and 00 have exactly the same fret scale and are equipped with exactly the same strings at the same tension, yet the 00 feels noticeably easier to play. It could have something to do with the lower neck relief on the treble side, but this apparent tightness or looseness in playability between guitars under identical string tension is a phenomenon widely noted by others. Luthier Howard Klepper has suggested that greater flexion and response in the tops and necks of some guitars make them feel looser than others, and this seems sensible to me. Perhaps the redwood and Port Orford cedar in the 00 flexes more than the Adirondack spruce and mahogany in the Circa. The increased flexion might also have something to do with the Bashkin top's modified X-brace with fanned finger braces half-lapped onto the bridge plate.
Balance. The first quality I listen for, the make-or-break feature that determines whether I maintain an interest in the guitar or say "Oh, well" and move on, is balance, and with the possible exception of the SJ (Small Jumbo) I played last year, this 00 is the best balanced Bashkin I've played so far. Strong midrange and trebles are a characteristic of the Bashkin sound, and though I'd still prefer slightly more depth in the low E, it certainly has good presence, and I have no trouble picking it out within a strummed chord. I freely admit my tastes in this regard may be idiosyncratic. Al Petteway played this guitar and declared its balance to be 'perfect,' and Circa's John Slobod thinks the bass response of the Bashkin sound to be one of its strongest features.
Sustain. I measure sustain by using a stopwatch, hitting a firm strum, then leaning in close until the sound fades to silence. I do this 4 or 5 times, then average the times. I’m usually within a second each time. My 1980 Sobell cittern is my benchmark instrument for a long sustain at 42 seconds. The Bashkin's sustain is around 30-35 seconds, and fairly long for a guitar, I think. The fundamental tones have the longest decay, with the harmonic partials falling away after 15-20 seconds or so.
Volume. I'd characterize the volume as very good. It's not quite as loud as the Circa, but still a surprisingly big voice for an instrument its size. The volume might benefit from medium strings. It achieves a forceful presence fairly easily, without a tremendous amount of headroom, but on the other hand, it's very articulate at low volumes, which makes it extremely sensitive to a light touch.
Response. This guitar's response is exceptionally lively and one of its greatest strengths. I've always thought of my Circa in rather regal terms, and I approach playing it with a certain amount of respect and focus to get it to sound its best. The 00, on the other hand, is much more intimate and approachable, and seems almost eager to sing under the lightest touch. I think the ergonomics of its smaller size also contributes to this feeling of intimacy.
Depth. The depth or spaciousness of the sound is what gives it dimension and presence. I think of it as how far down in the guitar the sound seems to come from and how completely the sound chamber is pushing out sound. The 00 seems to have very good depth for its size, with a presence I would expect from a larger instrument. It's a full, throaty voice for a little box.
The number and character of harmonic frequencies detectable in the sound is what many call resonance. However, I make a distinction for it here as a measure of fullness in the sound I can both hear AND feel. With a fairly light weight, this guitar seems to vibrate very freely. Once strings are struck to set the top in motion, the whole instrument seems to resonate completely in a way that can be heard as well as felt through the hands, chest and abdomen. While others played the guitar, I placed a finger on the end of the headstock, and different places on the sides, neck, and back. As one would expect with a double-sided construction, the sides were relatively inert, but everywhere else the guitar was vibrating freely.
Overtones. The harmonic resonant frequencies coloring the fundamental tones create the complexity referred to here as overtones. This is what gives the sound 'personality' and is one of the hallmarks of the Contemporary sound, and an area in which I was looking for something decidedly different from my Circa. The Bashkin achieves this in ways that are really quite remarkable, combining subtle, ringing tones over robust fundamentals (a quality I call 'shimmer') with a woody warmth. It's an impressive feat, and I would expect a guitar with this much shimmer to be brighter, with less warmth. When strummed, the strings blend beautifully, producing a nice, even shimmer across the chord. The trebles, especially, have a compelling, chime-y quality to them that make my Circa's trebles seem a bit sterile by comparison.
Timbre/Tone. If the overtones give the sound 'personality,' timbre describes the quality of that personality, combining the fundamentals, overtones and all other resonant frequencies generated by both the vibrating strings and the vibrating wood to create a particular instrument's unique voice. It's this 'quality of personality' I believe most folks refer to when they speak generally about a guitar's 'tone,' and this is a subjective area I find difficult to discuss at all without the heavy use of metaphor, such as its "eagerness to sing" mentioned above. The combination of warmth and shimmer in this instrument creates a distinctive timbre marked by a sweetness that invites the listener to relax and be enveloped. Others who have played it have described this guitar as combining some of the lushness of cedar with the sparkle of spruce. Although its voice is rich and assertive, there is also a delicacy to it, and when played with a light touch, the timbre is really quite intoxicating. I plan to replace the bone nut & saddle and perhaps the pins with West African hard ivory to give a slight boost to the guitar's clarity and presence.
What I'm always looking for are guitars I would consider 'Exceptional;' among the very best of the best. I admit I'm exceedingly difficult to please, and I find such guitars to be, as the name implies, exceptionally rare. So is this an Exceptional guitar? I'm extremely hesitant to award any instrument that status, and this guitar is still very new,
but I certainly do find it to be extraordinary in many ways, and I'm eager to see how it develops over time, and what little tweaks in the strings, nut, pins and saddle might do for a sound that I already find to be uniquely beautiful.
This guitar was not built 'for' me, but 'with me in mind,' and was sent to me simply for my feedback and review. As picky as I am, perhaps the highest praise I can give it is that I decided to keep it.
UPDATE – 8/31/09:
I recently replaced the vintage bone nut & saddle with those made of West African Hard Ivory, and spent several hours swapping out the two saddles, listening for the difference. In addition, since the guitar's playability was already 'loose,' requiring little effort to finger, I also tried going from lights to D'Addario medium strings. With the combination of these two changes, I think I've found this guitar's 'sweet spot,' making the sound even more remarkable. Presence, depth, resonance and volume have all increased noticeably, and the timbre has acquired a more solid quality, reminiscent of my regal Circa. The overtones of the mediums over the bone saddle seemed a bit dry, but once I put the ivory saddle in, the sparkle and shimmer returned. Without sacrificing sweetness, the timbre is now bolder, less delicate, while the heavier strings, vibrating in a tighter arc, help me to play cleaner while still being as easy to finger as my eminently playable Circa. I'm eager to see how time and use might improve it further.
See an Acoustic Guitar magazine profile of Michael Bashkin here: www.acousticguitar.com/article/default.aspx?articleid=22144